John Mitchinson considers the relationship British people have with their country’s past and how questions raised by uncomfortable imperial truths remain unanswered

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In The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie gave one of the best lines to the stuttering Indian film director Whisky Sisodia: the “trouble with the Engenglish is that their hiss hiss history happened overseas, so they dodo don’t know what it means”.

Sisodia was right, of course, and whatever emerges from the past months of protest, statue-toppling and intense debate, a concerted attempt to re-focus our collective attention (and – let us hope – the national curriculum) on the legacies of the British Empire and colonialism needs to happen.

We – and I mean white British people, in particular – all have to start somewhere.

My lockdown reading has been energised by an exemplary work of modern history: Insurgent Empire by Priyamvada Gopal, the Cambridge academic recently driven to protecting her Twitter account as it has been overwhelmed by racist abuse. Her book is an excellent primer in a history that isn’t much taught in English schools: that of the organised and determined resistance to Britain’s colonial expansion by the peoples of India, Africa and the Caribbean and the galvanising impact that had on the radical movements of 19th and 20th Century Britain. It is a book which explodes all remaining shreds of the imperial ‘mission to civilise’ with which the British have traditionally self-medicated, particularly when comparing our history of race relations to that of America.

A powerful example is her chapter on the Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica in 1865, just one in a long history of rebellions against white plantation owners in Jamaica, a British colony since 1655. The bare facts have a familiar ring.

An indentured worker was arrested and convicted of trespass on an abandoned plantation, outraging his fellow workers. Unrest was already fomenting because of low wages and redundancies caused by falling sugar prices and the recent depredations of cholera and smallpox. A fight broke out in the courtroom between the police and spectators. Warrants were issued and, two days later, several hundred black Jamaicans lead by the Baptist deacon Paul Bogle descended on the Morant Bay courthouse, armed with sticks and stones.

A pitched battle ensued (in which 25 people died) and the police and armed white militia were overwhelmed. For two days, the rebels held the entire region of St Thomas-in-the-East. The response of the island’s Governor, Edward John Eyre, was swift and disproportionate: troops were sent in and black Jamaicans were killed on sight – 439 died directly, 354 were arrested and many others were executed with little or no trial and at least 600 men and women were viciously flogged (wire whips were routinely used). The violence meted out exceeded even the worst excesses the black population had endured under slavery.

One key lesson that Gopal’s book teaches us is that neither rebellion nor the violent suppression of rebellion by British colonial rule were rare occurrences. What set the Morant Bay rebellion apart is the way it divided the British establishment. On one side, the liberals and radicals of the Jamaica Committee – set up by John Stuart Mill and including Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley – demanded Governor Eyre be tried for murder. On the other, the Governor Eyre Defense and Aid Committee was established by the historian Thomas Carlyle, with the support of literary grandees including Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Alfred Tennyson and Charles Kingsley, arguing that the governor had acted bravely in putting down a rebellion that threatened British economic interests.

The short-term consequences were that Eyre was replaced, the murder charges against him were thrown out of court and Jamaica became a crown colony, under direct rule from Westminster. A century later both Paul Bogle and George Gordon – the wealthy mixed-race businessman and Jamaican MP who Eyre named as the political ringleader of the rebellion and who, like Bogle, was hanged without trial in the rebellion’s aftermath – became Jamaican National Heroes, the nation’s highest official honour.  

The real purpose of Gopal’s account isn’t just the filling in of large gaps in our knowledge of Empire. “The project of developing a more demanding relationship to history than is offered by prevalent island stories must go beyond the performative largesse of ‘including’ ethnic and cultural minorities in the national,” she writes. Her account of the Eyre controversy reminds us it is as much a part of British history as it is of Jamaica’s. 

How is it that something as divisive and significant in Victorian public life – the English equivalent of the Dreyfus affair in France – should fall through the cracks in our historical memory? Perhaps it is because the uncomfortable chasm it opened up still hasn’t closed.

What kind of freedom were non-English subjects of Empire entitled to? How fit were they to own their own land and manage their own political and economic affairs? The Eyre controversy was provoked by Black Jamaicans – many of them former slaves – asking these questions on their own behalf.

A century and a half later, with the fall-out from the Windrush Scandal still painfully alive, many are still asking the same questions and still waiting for better answers. 

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI.


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